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November 5, 2008 > Small-town banker a source of calm, wisdom

Small-town banker a source of calm, wisdom

Submitted By AP Wire Service, By Todd Lewan, AP National Writer

LAKE WALES, Fla. (AP), Oct 31 _ The gentleman put on his finest white shirt, dark, pressed trousers, his Sunday shoes. Only it was a Thursday, and Jim Christensen needed not a pastor, but a banker. At age 61, he was about to lose his restaurant.

So he made his way to Citizens Bank & Trust, where he and a large share of this city's 13,052 residents keep their savings, and asked to see the bank's president. Had he made an appointment? No, ma'am. Could he come back that afternoon? No, ma'am.

Christensen took a chair and tried to sit still.

Five years _ that's how long he'd operated the Crazy Fish on Henry Street, serving fresh pompano, salmon and yahoo, keeping the price of his gumbo soup affordable, keeping the place homey with simple decorating touches.

All summer, though, his regulars had become sometimers, and 90 percent of those who could still afford to eat out paid by credit card _ which was OK, as long as the Wachovia Corp., which processed his merchant's credit, advanced the Crazy Fish money each day for operating expenses.

Then, Wachovia collapsed. Credit that arrived each day now took three. For a family enterprise that lived hand to mouth, that carried a mortgage but no emergency cash, the announcement was the equivalent of a pink slip.

``Sir?'' A secretary was tapping his shoulder. ``You can go on in, now.''

There are tricks to negotiating a loan with favorable terms. You smile, shake hands firmly. You establish eye contact. You talk about the upbeat side of your business. Christensen did none of these things.

``This is the worst possible time I could be coming to you for money,'' he blurted to the man now studying him from behind a big, oak desk, ``because I desperately need it.''

How much? Four thousand dollars.

When? Immediately.

How much time would he need to repay the loan? Sixty _ well, 90 days.

The banker, Greg Littleton, said nothing at first. He'd lunched often at the Crazy Fish. He knew how hard this man, together with his wife, Jeanie, and their daughters and grandchildren, worked the floor.

But he also knew restaurants were among the first casualties in hard times; there were few successful eateries in town. How would the Crazy Fish pay back the loan, in the maw of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Littleton stood up.

``Jim,'' he said softly, ``I'll sort this out.'' It would be OK.

___

Littleton is something of a celebrity in Polk County _ not so much because, by age 41, he's already served as head of nearly every economic development body in these parts, but from observations such as these:

``In Greg Littleton's world, there are no little people.'' That's James Brow, 51, who has operated Long's Dry Cleaners downtown for 30 years.

``I trust he'll tell me what he really thinks and believes _ not what he thinks will make him a profit.'' So says Matt Fanuef, 45, whose insures mobile homes for retirees.

``Greg's ... not motivated by his brain, but by his heart.'' That's Kathy Manry, 62, a city commissioner.

To the citrus growers and cattle ranchers who form the economic spine of rural Polk County, these traits are a code to live by, an antidote to the vanity and greed that combined for such catastrophic effect on Wall Street.

To some, Littleton is a therapist, to others a financial sage. To everyone, he is a church deacon who declines to wear his religion on his sleeve, a patron of the local Arts Center, a NASCAR fan, the centerpiece of a newspaper ad that says:

``Remember when you could meet your bank president for a cup of coffee? Good news! You still can!''

Littleton is above average in height, trim as a coin, with a broad, schoolboyish face. His glance is level, prosaic. His hair, brown yet graying at the edges, is perfectly parted, suggesting a taste for exactitude.

Banks, in his opinion, need to act conservatively in good times, and extend themselves in moments of crisis ``to be a force of stability and calmness for our communities and our customers.''

To that end, he recently set a goal for his staff officers: To pay a visit to every customer on a list of 600 clients by year's end. (He didn't exclude himself from the task.)

It's not exactly how big banks normally evaluate risk _ that is, relying on mathematical models or delegating much of the responsibility for evaluating borrowers to other players, such as credit-rating agencies.

``There's an old saying: 'The best fertilizer in any grove is the owner's footsteps,''' Littleton explains, chuckling. ``We don't wait for the street to come to us. We go to Main Street to stay on top of what's going on.''

When he is about town, which is nearly every afternoon, he takes note of the troubling clues of recession: the empty parking spaces outside the shops on East Stuart Avenue, the closed ice cream parlor on Park Avenue, the vacant display windows within the historic district's shopping Arcade.

Lately, the queries from townies quiver with anxiety:

How's the Dow today?

Should I drain my 401(K)?

Will I be able to get a college loan?

Littleton tells them that the bank is on solid footing, in no need of federal bailout money. As to when this country's economy will hit bottom, what's his expert opinion? ``Your guess is as good as mine.''

___

On a recent Sunday evening, before delivering a sermon on the need for faith in troubled financial times, Bob Bauer, the Church of Christ minister, approached Littleton with this question:

``How's our money doing?''

The two men have similar retirement accounts at Citizens Bank. Littleton shrugged. ``Not any worse off than anybody else's.''

With that, the preacher took the podium. His sermon acknowledged that many parishioners were worried, understandably so, about their retirement money.

However, he went on, ``Let me say this: Until the day I see Greg go completely gray-headed, or see Greg's wife take a part-time job at McDonald's, I truly feel that we're all going to be OK.''

Cashwise, Citizens Bank is in good shape. In the last six weeks, deposits are up by $12 million, about 7 percent. In August, the bank made more loans than ever _ $12.8 million; in one week in October, it loaned $2 million.

Just four loans are in foreclosure now, Littleton said. ``We do whatever we can not to resort to that.''

One recent weekday, Littleton stopped in to the Crazy Fish for his usual: Mahi Mahi, blackened, with mango sauce.

Christensen quickly came over. Just a handshake wouldn't suffice; Christiansen offered a hug. ``Words can't express my gratitude,'' he said, his eyes glistening, ``for all that you did for us in this tough, tough time.''

Littleton, visibly embarrassed, grinned. He was, after all, just a small-town banker doing his part.

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